Rob Morgan, Collections Database Administrator
At the beach resort of Biloxi, Mississippi, one of the tourist attractions during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was George Ohr’s pottery shop. A few blocks from the beach was a five story pagoda with signs stating “GREATEST ART POTTER ON EARTH” and “GET A BILOXI SOUVENIR BEFORE THE POTTER DIES”. If you were courageous enough to enter the shop you encountered a man with a mustache wrapped around his cheeks and tied behind his head.Self described as the mad potter of Biloxi, George Ohr’s studio contained thousands of twisted pots with brightly colored glazes. Not surprisingly, the pots went unsold and were kept in crates until their discovery in the late 1960s.
Born in Biloxi in 1857, Ohr learned how to throw pots from a friend in New Orleans. In the early 1880s, Ohr travelled the United States learning what he could about pottery. Returning to Biloxi in 1883, Ohr built a pottery shop next to his father’s house. After a fire destroyed his shop in 1894, Ohr built a new studio dedicated to his art pots. He found the clay for these pots in the Tchoutacabouffa River north of Biloxi. The make-up of this clay, and his skill as a potter, enabled Ohr to create pots with paper thin walls and twisted, pinched shapes.
Ohr created thousands of pots after the 1894 fire, including the two pots in the collection of the BMA. The pot above is typical of his earlier work – a pinched pot with a multi-colored glaze. Ohr’s later pots lacked glazing. To Ohr, glazes became superfluous as the form became the focus. The vessel walls became thinner and the forms more twisted. The pot below, also from the collection of the BMA, is from this later period.
Ohr quit making pots in 1909 after receiving a large inheritance from his parents. He died of throat cancer in 1918 at the age of 60. The pottery shop was turned into an auto repair shop run by George’s sons. The pots were crated and stored in a garage until James W. Carpenter, an antiques dealer from New Jersey, came across them on a trip in 1968. After several years of negotiation, Carpenter purchased the lot for $50,000. Thus, the pots reentered the marketplace and the story and work of George Ohr was rediscovered.
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.